While it can be confusing, the answers to the following three questions will help you navigate the mutual fund waters—from how they work to how to add them to your investment portfolio. What Is a Mutual Fund? For all intents and purposes, mutual funds serve as an alternative for investors who can’t afford an individually managed account. Mutual funds are formed when investors with smaller amounts of capital, pool their money together and then hire a portfolio manager to run the consolidated pool’s portfolio—subsequently buying different stocks, bonds, or other securities in a manner consistent with the fund’s prospectus. Each investor then receives their respective piece of the pie while sharing the expenses, which show up in something called the mutual fund expense ratio.
How Do I Buy a Mutual Fund? Mutual funds are primarily bought in dollar amounts unlike stocks, which are bought in shares. Mutual funds can be purchased directly from a mutual fund company, a bank, or a brokerage firm. Before you can start investing, you’ll need to have an account with one of these institutions prior to placing an order. A mutual fund will be either a “load” or “no-load” fund, which is financial lingo for either paying a commission or not paying a commission. If you are using an investment professional to assist you, you will likely need to pay a load.
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Think of mutual funds as investment baskets of securities. Each basket has its own objective and manager (or management team). The manager also has a team of analysts that assist in doing the research. Also keep in mind that, when it comes to management, mutual funds fall into two primary categories — one is active management and the other is passive management. Managers of actively-managed funds will use their resources to try and ”beat the market,” which is to say that they’ll attempt to outperform a certain benchmark, such as the S&P 500 index. However, the manager of a passively-managed mutual fund will not try to beat the index but will instead buy and hold a basket of stocks that will replicate the holdings and performance of the index.
Once you know your investment objective, which will include the number of years to invest and how much risk you’re willing to take, you can choose the best mutual fund or funds for you. And depending upon the types of mutual funds you use, the ongoing maintenance required may be little to nothing. Mutual Funds Offer Professional Management. One of the primary reasons investing mutual funds is easy is because they’re professionally managed. Rather than researching, analyzing, buying and selling stocks or bonds yourself, you have a skilled money manager doing it for you. Professional management is at the core of how mutual funds work: When investors buy shares of mutual funds, they’re pooling their money together. Managers use this pool of money to buy the stocks or bond securities that end up forming one portfolio.
Start your research with one of the best no-load mutual fund companies, such as Vanguard, Fidelity, and T. Rowe Price. No-load mutual funds don’t have sales charges, called loads, which can be as high as 5.75% of the purchase. Therefore, when buying no-load funds, you’re buying shares without paying loads. Also, these mutual fund companies offer many different mutual funds with low expenses, which are measured by an expense ratio. For example, many of Vanguard’s funds have expenses below 0.30%, which is $30 for every $10,000 invested, whereas average expenses for most mutual funds are above 1% or three times that of Vanguard’s.